3 June 2015 - Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, condemns South Korea’s on-going persecution of civil society groups and protestors calling for transparent and independent investigations into the sinking of the Sewol Ferry on 16 April 2014 in which 304 people, mostly school students lost their lives. CIVICUS urges South Korean authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all activists currently detained for participating in the demonstrations.

“The South Korean Government is exhibiting growing hostility towards peaceful protest movements in the country,” said Tor Hodenfield, Policy and Research Officer, from the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS. “Rather than responding to citizens’ legitimate concerns, the authorities are violently attempting to silence critical voices and groups.”

Since April 2015, tens of thousands of peaceful protestors have held extensive demonstrations across the capital, Seoul, commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Sewol Ferry disaster. The protests, organised by the Coalition 4.16 on the Sewol Ferry Disaster, an alliance of victims’ families, individual supporters, and more than 800 South Korean NGOs, have called on the government to establish an independent investigation committee to determine the underlying causes of the incident and the widely criticised rescue effort.

State security forces have routinely responded to the peaceful protests with disproportionate and excessive force. During protests in Seoul on 16 and 18 April and 1 May, police used water cannons, teargas and bus barricades to disperse and prevent demonstrators marching toward the President’s residence. Over 100 protestors reportedly sustained injuries due to the indiscriminate use of force by police.

Further, on a number of occasions during the protests, the police resorted to unwarranted mass arrests to quell the demonstrations. On 18 April 2015, at least 100 human rights defenders, including lawyers, journalists, religious leaders and victims’ family members were arrested. Days later on 1 May 2015, 42 people were arrested under similar circumstances.

At least six protestors and civil society activists remain in detention for participating in the demonstrations. On 4 June, the trial of two representatives of the People’s Committee for the Sewol Ferry tragedy, a coalition of more than 800 South Korean NGOs, Mr Hyun-sik Kim and Mr Hyung-jae Ham commenced in the capital. Mr Kim and Mr Ham, who have been detained since 30 April, are being held on unspecified charges and are accused of being the main organisers of the recent protests.

“The right to protest peacefully is a well-recognised democratic right. We urge South Korean authorities to enable not impede this right,” said Hodenfield. 

CIVICUS urges the South Korean Government to cease its unwarranted crackdown on peaceful protests and to immediately release all protestors and human rights defenders imprisoned for exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

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